NEW DELHI – A military showdown over Syria has been averted for now but the proxy war that pits the United States and its allies against Russia is set to intensify in that critically located nation, with further horrific consequences for civilians and the likely proliferation of transnational terrorists.
Had U.S. President Barack Obama waged war on Syria, as he almost did, he wouldn’t have got what diplomacy has achieved — a U.S.-Russian deal to disarm that country of its chemical-weapons arsenal.
To be sure, Obama was desperate to climb down from his war carriage without losing face, given that no previous American president had looked so weak at home and so isolated abroad on a war issue. Russian President Vladimir Putin bailed out Obama in the nick of time from a looming congressional defeat over authorization to attack Syria — a setback that would have hobbled the rest of Obama’s presidency.
The path of diplomacy has not only helped Obama to salvage his international image but also yielded an important deal that he can trumpet. Securing chemical arms in a war zone, however, will pose daunting challenges.
The paradox is that the same institution that Obama bypassed to declare his intention to go to war — the United Nations — is now indispensable to his goal of peacefully eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons, an arsenal Damascus has readily agreed to surrender because of its increasing challenges to keep it secure in the midst of a brutal civil war.
The bigger paradox is that the two powers that have failed to meet a legally binding, 15-year deadline to scrap their own chemical-weapons arsenals have set a short deadline of about nine months to completely strip Syria of such weapons. Russia and the U.S. missed the third and final deadline of 2012 to destroy their remaining stockpiles under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Given America’s long-running cold war with Moscow and Putin’s demonization in the U.S. media, the deal on Syria represents a rare success in U.S.-Russian diplomacy. The deal, however, will have little effect on Syria’s civil war — one of the bloodiest conflicts in the world — and one that has been fueled by Russian and American arms supplies to rival sides.
Indeed, Russia and the U.S. are determined to continue their 2½-year-old proxy war in an already fractured Syria, with the U.S. arms supply to rebels bankrolled by the oil sheikdoms, some of which also have been arranging direct weapon shipments to both the U.S.-backed insurgents and the independent jihadists. Who cares for civilians?
In this light, the key questions relate to Syria’s future. Will a new international-terrorist hub emerge that stretches across much of northern Syria and into the Sunni areas of Iraq?
And will Syria’s fate be different from that of other countries, such as Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. intervention spawned unending militancy and violence?
The Syria issue is about more than just President Bashar Assad or chemical weapons: It is integral to the geopolitical clash between the Sunni Middle East, which remains under the U.S.-British-French sway, and the Shiite crescent stretching from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Syrian port of Tartus, Russia’s only military base outside the ex-Soviet Union. With Russia emerging as a great-power patron in the Shiite crescent, the U.S. and the region’s two former colonial powers, Britain and France, are seeking to safeguard the regional geopolitical hegemony that they have enjoyed since the early 1970s, when Egypt switched sides.
Over the decades, the U.S. has cemented close ties with Sunni Islamist rulers, including the cloistered Arab monarchs who fund Muslim extremist groups and madrasas overseas. Washington has already forgotten the main lesson from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes — that it must focus on long-term strategic goals rather than short-term tactical victories. One reminder of that is Obama’s current effort to strike a Faustian bargain with the thuggish Afghan Taliban.
American neoconservatives engineered the 2003 Iraq invasion but, in the recent push to attack Syria, they ceded the lead role to liberal interventionists — the hawks on the left who promoted the U.S. military interventions of the 1990s on “humanitarian” grounds and who now believed that a war on Syria would work so that Americans would forget the feasts of past failure. Among those loudly beating the drums of a war against Syria were actress Mia Farrow and senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer from California.
The serial interventionists have failed take a good, hard look at the lessons of America’s past military interventions. For example, those who took the U.S. to war in Libya have ignored how that “humanitarian” intervention has boomeranged, creating a lawless Islamist state impinging on its neighbors’ security.
In backing jihad against Assad’s autocratic rule, Obama’s policy has inadvertently strengthened the hands of radical Islamists. The CIA-aided Free Syrian Army is in danger of being eclipsed by the pro-al-Qaida insurgent groups designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. state department — the Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The risk of an Iraq-style “soft” partition of Syria is high. Indeed, in a July 18 briefing, Obama’s spokesperson Jay Carney declared that Assad “will never rule all of Syria again.”
This was a reminder that the unstated goal of Obama’s Mission Military Stalemate in Syria is an eventual partition, with Assad’s power confined to a rump Syria. As former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski has acknowledged, “A stalemate is in our interest” — a Machiavellian scenario to lock regime and rebel forces in mutually debilitating combat.
But with jihadists already in control of much of northern Syria, the danger — as CIA’s former deputy director Michael Morell has warned — is that an al-Qaida haven could emerge. This is exactly what happened earlier in Afghanistan as an unintended byproduct of America’s proxy war against the Soviet forces there.
In fact, with the U.S. mired in the Syrian morass and beholden to the oil sheiks for funding its proxy war, the transition from covert to overt aid to rebels by the CIA has occurred much faster than it did in the 1980s’ Afghanistan, although Syria has already become a magnet for foreign Sunni jihadists, with some of them staging terrorist attacks in Iraq and Lebanon. As happened when the U.S. armed the Afghan mujaheddin (holy warriors), the CIA’s arms supply, far from winning loyal surrogates in Syria, is likely to end up empowering radical forces with transnational ties that extol and perpetrate violence as a religious tool.
For some in Washington and for America’s regional allies — the petro-sheikdoms, Israel and Turkey — the proxy war in Syria is really part of a larger proxy war to contain Iran. The grinding proxy war in Syria thus promises to exact increasing costs regionally and internationally while allowing the U.S.-allied regional autocrats from Abu Dhabi to Ankara to step up their repression at home without fear of international censure. Russia, meanwhile, will continue to prop up the Assad regime.
Given the increasingly murky geopolitics in spite of a rising tide of civilian displacement, suffering and death, Syria seems set to meet the fate of internally battered Afghanistan, a source of regional instability for more than a generation.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and a long-standing contributor to The Japan Times.